By Kevin Bouffard The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla.
Recognition as an Emerging Leader came as icing on the cake for Stephanie Colon, who had already achieved her most important life goal.
"I knew very early in life I did not want to be a victim of circumstances. I did not want to be a product of my environment," said Colon, 37, an assistant vice president and business banker at Community Southern Bank in Lakeland.
That environment included alcohol and drug abuse at a home she left at age 16, a teenage pregnancy and struggling financially to raise four children, only two of which were her own.
She started in low-wage jobs as a waitress and a bank teller before rising to her current position as a top executive at Community Southern.
"In spite of her upbringing, she rose ... pulled herself up," said Sharon Casey, 58, vice president and director of business development at Community Southern, whom Colon described as her mentor and "at-work mom."
Such extraordinary pluck and her contributions to many civic groups recently earned Colon one of five 2014 Emerging Leader Awards for professionals between ages 21 and 42.
Three Polk County young professional groups -- Emerge Lakeland, the Winter Haven Young Professionals Group and Engage, part of the Greater Bartow Chamber of Commerce -- sponsor the annual award.
Born in Fort Gordon, Ga., while her father, Stephen Sanders, was serving in the Army, her parents then moved to Fort Lauderdale, where she was raised until age 12.
After her parents divorced, Colon moved to Lakeland with her mother, who later remarried.
Because of her mother's and stepfather's alcoholism, Colon moved to Fort Meade into the home of her boyfriend and later her first husband, Jeff Siler, and his parents, Gail and Winfred Siler. They later had a daughter, Jordan Siler, who is now 19 and living in Wauchula.
They divorced after Colon graduated from Fort Meade High School in 1996, and she moved back to Lakeland, where she worked as a waitress at Red Lobster, studied business at then Polk Community College and raised her daughter.
Colon had to drop out of school short of a degree because she had to work to support her daughter. While at Red Lobster in 1997, she met Jose Colon, a cook at the time and now the manager of the Lakeland Starbucks coffee shop. He also is a technical sergeant in the Air Force Reserve. They were married in February 2002 after their daughter, Mercede, now 15, was born.
Although raising two daughters presented many challenges, the Colons agreed to take in Stephanie's 9-year-old half-brother, Joshua Beatty, by her mother's second marriage in 2002. He is now a lance corporal in the Marines in legal administration.
Then, in 2007, they also took in Sidney Colon, 12, her husband's daughter by his first marriage.
She and her husband never hesitated taking in Joshua or Sidney, Colon said. "My husband and I made a lot of sacrifices for them," she said. "We are very blessed. We're family. We're there for each other."
In the other momentous 1997 life-changing event, besides meeting her future husband, Colon started her banking career.
She began as a teller at the former Florida First Bank, then rose to be teller manager in just two years.
Colon held that position through several subsequent mergers that ended for her at Wachovia, purchased by Wells Fargo in 2008.
After "some soul searching," Colon returned to her local bank roots with Community Southern in 2007, just a year after the Lakeland-based bank was founded.
"I never wanted to settle for status quo. I always wanted to better myself," Colon said.
After three years as a teller and executive assistant, Colon was promoted to business banker, then became a banking officer one year later. In 2013, she rose to her current position as assistant vice president.
Casey, who brought Colon to Community Southern after meeting her socially, said she recognized her potential immediately.
"When I first met Stephanie, I knew there was so much she could bring to our bank," she said. "You could see the potential." Her outstanding abilities include great customer service skills, being a team player and the ability to take positive criticism, she said.
"I was quick to realize she was one of those high-energy people that never met a stranger and was willing to do whatever she could for the bank," said her supervisor, Robert Loftin, East Polk County president at Community Southern.
Her current responsibilities include bringing new clients to the bank across the Polk County area as well as serving existing customers.
Colon said banking became a good fit because she was always good at math and science in school and learned people skills as a waitress while in high school and afterwards.
She could also relate to many of the entrepreneurs she works with.
"I understood what I was doing. I like the service aspect of it," she said. "It's always a pleasure to see self-made business people find success."
Along the way, she's volunteered for many community and business groups, including the Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce; Business Networking International, where she served as vice president last year; Emerge Lakeland, where she served as an officer on its Steering and Events committees; the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure (breast cancer); a United Way of Central Florida board member and the Lakeland High School girls' softball team fundraising president.
Colon said she is most proud of her work with Girls Inc., which serves at-risk young women. Ithonored her in 2012 with its "She Knows Where She's Going Award" for women who have overcome early life obstacles.
"That set the stage because it allowed me to tell my story," Colon said. "Most people in the community had no idea of my life. It wasn't bad, but it was a struggle."
Another friend and mentor, Ruth Vazquez, 52, the Lake Christina branch manager at Regions Bank, said she thought Colon's early life instilled a drive to succeed.
"She's always had this drive, very tenacious. I told her, 'You can do whatever you put your mind to,' " said Vazquez, who's known Colon for more than 15 years after working together at Wachovia. "Looking back at where she came from, she's definitely not a statistic."